Saturday, July 11, 2009

Of Orwell and Polibabble

All of us have heard the word psycho-babble - that derogative term used to ridicule the co-opting of psychological jargon by self-help gurus and the strange, numb recitation of those same words by their followers. Believing they were helping confront a particularly American variety of neuroses, these would-be mentors instead became a key component of the overall madness. Babble is distinguished by its lack of resonance, for the way in which it falls from the lips, not flat but with discord, cacophony. Nothing can produce more bodily discomfort in the listener than hearing some middle aged man or woman attempt to explain away their divorce and unemployment as having stemmed from "lack of synergy with their reptilian brain and a need for holistic empowerment."

The idea that imprecise language leads to sloppy thinking is neither new nor confined to TV therapy. Recently, I decided to revisit George Orwell's 1946 essay " Politics and the English Language" to see what sorts of insights it can offer on our modern discourse. The piece is one of Orwell's shorter missives but it acts as a key to much of his other work and has long been a personal favorite. Orwell was a champion of clarity and in an early passage, he offers this description of the political language of the 40's:

"This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked
characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of
political writing.

As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the
abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are
not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the
sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together
like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.."

It doesn't take much of an effort to think of areas where this description could be applied today. We live in an era where politicians and pundits alike have lost the ability (or rather the desire) to convey policy to their constituents in a concrete manner; where even basic terms like freedom, law, public, and private, take on loaded connotations in skilled hands, while at the same time corrupting and closing off the very outlet these words once offered to those who hoped to escape from under the thumb of an abusive power structure.

For Orwell, the confusion proffered by men of influence was an intentional one, designed to distract their audience from brutal truths they might otherwise oppose. Today's sleight of hand, though, is not used so much to deflect but, as mentioned above, to disable. Regardless of what one thinks of the economic viability or comparative disadvantages of single payer healthcare, to say that at least a small, select portion of the population would stand to gain from its implementation is a modest, even timid, observation. And yet it was in great part this same portion of the population that stood in opposition to health care reform in the 1990's, driven on by a squadron of republican sooth sayers who spoke bold prophesies of the dangers of "socialized medicine" and told us ominously that "big government would soon be dictating all decisions regarding our health and well being."

This ability to control the terms of debate was one of the master strokes of the modern conservative movement. How does one govern when government in and of itself is inherently bad? The frame left little room for social and economic change. Challenging what one perceived an unjust law became "legislating from the bench"; attempts to regulate business were no longer seen as a way for society to leverage power over corporations and force them to take responsibility for the effects of their actions, but rather fell under the maligned umbrella of " bureaucratic red tape." By the time the conservatives were finished, liberal policies were opposed not only for their specifics but for their goals. Any attempt to use government to better the lives of the public was rejected in principle.

This is, of course, what people mean when they describe the Obama administration as "socialist" or "communist." It's not that they actually find anything threatening in the specifics of say, repealing the Bush tax cuts, but that the very idea of progressive taxation represents some antithesis of the American way of life, where people are supposed to be "free" enough to became as rich as they like. In their minds, giving into the ideals behind income redistribution takes us down the dreaded "slippery slope" (If Orwell was alive today, this particular idiom would surely have made his list of what he called "dying metaphors.)" So the song goes, so it has been sung, to great effect. Until now.

The great mistake that cost the right the presidency and control of both houses of congress was that they failed to see they way in which government involvement in American life was losing its once apocalyptic image. After Hurricane Katrina, it became obvious that some tasks are big enough that only the state can handle be relied upon to handle them. Suddenly, a world of individual responsibility carried new anxieties. People wanted a safety net. And after the stock market crash of 2008, it appeared that the rules of the road created under Roosevelt were not as expendable as they once seemed. But instead of grasping this shift and adjusting accordingly, the right clung desperately to its old stock phrases and customary fix-alls. By election day, John McCain looked more and more like a ventriloquist's doll left alone on stage with noone to give him voice.

I am far from the first person to note that today's Republican party is standing on the edge of irrelevance. But what many in the media have failed to notice is that the conservative ideas that formed the core of the party's image have also lost their sting. Conservatives would like us to believe that the Republican party lost out because it turned its back on its principles. This is the preferred lament of writers in places like The Daily Beast or National Review. Bush
"expanded the size of government" rather than contract it. He bought into a "liberal" foreign policy that sought to reconstruct heaven in the heat of the desert sun. This explanation can only make sense if we accept the premise that Bush's galactic budget deficits were the result of spending on social programs, rather than the truth which is that the money was used to fund a war that was supported by nearly every one of these same pundits, right until the moment they realized the public had lost their will to continue.

While it would be wishful thinking for this liberal to describe conservative thought as dead and buried, the ugly reality for those on the right is that the language they have used to communicate those ideas is, in fact, on the verge of demise. While the old magic spells still hold sway over an increasingly small, and increasingly myopic slice of the social and ethnic pie, it's going to take a fresh set of angles to convince the public that they deserve a seat at the table once again. Until then, we are left with a scrappy band of congressman whose only interest is in maintaining control of the narrow constituency that elected them, and a frightening group of second generation true believers, for whom the rhetoric of Reagan and Gingritch has taken on an air of religious fervor. Like the disciples of psychobabble, they hold little understanding of the texts from which that rhetoric springs. They would feel as uncomfortable holding the books of Milton Friedman as they would John Meynard Keynes and yet they speak with unsettling conviction of the "free market" and "rational economics." It would not be right to refer to these utterances as actual words, rather they can only be termed as polibabble, a ridiculous amalgam of political soup that is so disconnected from reality it approaches the heights of performance art.

The word polibabble has been used for some time by the right to belittle the empty liberal rhetoric that survived too long past the Johnson era. But it seems they forgot that petards have a habit of hoisting the engineer who laid them. The speakers of modern conservative polibabble are as ridiculous and rife for parody as were the hippies at Woodstock who told everyone that if they concentrated their energies they could the rain, or the western marxists of the early 20th century who, as Orwell rightly pointed out, failed to provide an original vocabulary that would hold some meaning for their audience and instead relied on phrases translated from Russian that carried the entire operation into the abstract. When Russians spoke of "white guard" and "revolutionary struggle" the words carried a specific meaning. In the hands of rich American teenagers, they became grating poetry. Sarah Palin should be so lucky.

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